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Sat 8 Mar 2008 04:00 AM

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It's game on for builders

As developments vie for attention, many have turned to sports stars to boost their profile.

With many projects in the UAE vying for attention, some developments have turned to sports stars to boost their profile. Hugo Berger takes a long, hard look at this phenomenon.

It is estimated that 3% of all of the world's trade is related to sport.

The image of super-fit people, battling it out for immense prizes while being cheered on by adoring fans is one that the marketing world has wholeheartedly embraced.

These days it is hard to open a magazine or turn on the television without seeing a perfume, car, clothing range or soft drink not backed by the face of a sports star.

As the construction boom in the Middle East continues to heat up, the need for developers to draw attention to their new schemes is becoming more intense.

And so it was only a matter of time before developers looked to sports players to give their projects that extra sparkle.

Already, many new sporting developments have had a sports celebrity willing to lend his or her name to it.

Colin Montgomery has a golf course in Dubai named after him, soccer legend Pelé is backing a football academy in Abu Dhabi and tennis champion Maria Sharapova is endorsing tennis facilities at Dubai Lifestyle City.

Yet the trend for celebrity sports star endorsements moved a step further when German developer ACI announced the Trilogy Project.

Anyone driving down the Sheikh Zayed Road will have seen the huge billboards with the faces of tennis ace Boris Becker and motor racing greats Michael Schumacher and Niki Lauda on them.

The advertisements are there to promote the three new business tower projects in Dubai's Business Bay named after the Teutonic sporting heroes.

For a golf course or a football academy, it is an obvious choice to have a legend of that sporting discipline add to the prestige of the development. Yet what is the link between a sports star and a business tower?

Robin Lohmann, managing director, ACI, insists there is no anomaly in choosing a sportsman to endorse a purely commercial scheme. Instead, he claims, it is a novel way of making ACI's project stand out in Dubai's intensely cut-throat property market.

Lohmann says: "All of the associations have been successful in communicating our promise with our target audience and breaking the clutter in a competitive marketing environment that exists in the Dubai property market.

"While they may come from specific parts of Europe, importantly, our brand ambassadors are international icons - recognised globally as having achieved milestones in their respective fields."

And Lohmann insists the marketing scheme was not just an excuse for the sportsmen to take a huge cheque to add to their already healthy bank balances.

"ACI's Trilogy project alongside such greats as Schumacher and Niki Lauda is both staggering and humbling," he says.

"The key reason for this success has been due to the hands-on involvement of these legends in the design and planning of respective towers and today they each sit on the board of directors for their respective buildings.

"This is a clear departure from traditional celebrity product endorsement."
So ACI insists that the sportsmen have actually played a role in the design of the building. But does this mean that Boris Becker Business Tower will have a tennis theme, or Michael Schumacher Business Avenue will have walls embossed with racing cars?

"The lobby and the reception area will have a world-class finish as they are commercial spaces so we cannot design the individual offices," says Lohmann.

So Lohmann insists ACI's projects are not just a cynical marketing ploy, but a tangible link-up between the world of development and the world of sport.

However, at a recent press conference, Becker admitted his link to the project involved little more than marketing it.

David Spencer, CEO of Golf, Leisurecorp, the company behind the new Jumeirah Golf Estates development in Dubai, believes that sports star sponsorship can be taken too far.

The company, which is a subsidiary of Istithmar, the investment company of Dubai World, is behind the new Earth, Water, Fire and Wind course near the Green Community.

The two courses which make up Phase A of the development - Fire and Earth - have been designed by Australian golfing legend Greg Norman.

Phase B, the Water course, has been designed by Fijian player Veejay Singh and Phase C, Wind, by Spanish star Sergio Garcia. All have been assisted by world-renowned golf course architect Pete Dye.

Spencer says: "I can understand Greg Norman designing a golf course or a housing development beside one of his golf courses. I couldn't understand Greg Norman designing a swimming pool."

"Branding is very much part of Dubai. We are very, very brand conscious and I think that ours are quite sensible."

Spencer says Norman's contribution to the construction work has been very hands-on.

"Cynical people would say they have very little to do with the course design and construction. The reality is, as a developer, they have too much," he jokes.

Norman runs his own design company, and as the course is being built, there is a designer from his firm on site at all times. Norman has also visited the site nine times in the last three years to see how construction is going.

Spencer says that as Norman's reputation as a designer was being staked on the course, he was determined to make his mark on the scheme.

"Jumeriah Golf Estates will be the host of the world's richest golf tournament and that means him and his golf course will be judged by his peers," he says.

During his visits, Norman works with the 'shapers', experts in topography who shift the sand to create the course the designer has envisaged.

"He is often coming here and asking us to change things, move bunkers and the like," says Spencer.

"He goes through every part of the golf course - every tee, every fairway, every landing area and every bunker to check it's up to scratch."

"He mainly discusses things with the shapers - who are the key to the construction of the course."

The shapers are basically highly-paid bulldozer drivers. Greg has a whole lot of shapers who work for him all around the world.

"They spend a lot of time with him and can interpret how the designer feels about the strategy of the course design."
Spencer adds that with all of the courses he had worked which had been endorsed by golfers, none of them had had little involvement.

He says: "There is a school of thought that says these signature designers, as they have been called, sign the course and have nothing to do with it."

"I have been involved in a lot of golf courses and I have never known this to be the case."

"If you saw the input Greg had into the details of the golf course then you would be gobsmacked."

Spencer insists the choice of celebrity sportsman was not just determined by the size of the pay cheque.

He says: "At the beginning we had a look at every golf course designer, including Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus. We wanted to have designers we thought our demographic would know."

"We also wanted to have designers who we thought believed in Dubai, that Dubai was cool and not just another design job."

"For a guy like Tiger Woods or Greg Norman, it's not actually all about money."

"They have to have belief in the city, what they're doing."

"We wanted to do business with people who believed in Dubai, who understood what we were trying to create and enhance the value of our real estate, and importantly do business with people we liked and respected."

The amount that any of these sportsmen have been paid for the endorsements has not been revealed.

But when Schumacher arrived in Dubai last month to promote the Michael Schumacher Business Avenue, it was estimated by Zachary Nadler of New York-based All American Speakers, which manages some of the racing driver's engagements, that it costs US $250,000 plus a private jet, for him just to show up.

Obviously, as long as sport and construction remain lucrative businesses, the chance for both sectors to use each other for monetary gain will continue.

Lohmann has not ruled out further celebrity-endorsed projects to boost its development credentials in the UAE. He says: "Currently we are working on several exciting marketing plans which will coincide with the launch of the projects."

A vague statement perhaps, but the interest generated by the Trilogy Project clearly shows it is a marketing campaign which has worked.

Surely it can't be long before we see David Beckham Shopping Mall or Roger Federer Apartments.

FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH: THE SPORTS STARS AND THEIR VALUESNiki Lauda: The 51-year-old Austrian, three times the F1 world champion, launched his own charter airline, Niki, in 2003, which he expects to post profits of $3.2mn in 2008.

Boris Becker: The six-time Grand Slam singles tennis champion had a personal fortune somewhere in the region of $350mn in 2001, before his finances were hit after an expensive divorce settlement and being convicted of tax evasion in 2002.

Michael Schumacher: The F1 ace and seven-times World Champion topped America's Forbes magazine's Rich list for sports earners in 2000, raking in US$59mn in that year alone. His personal fortune is said to be around $800mn.

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